Visa requirements are increasingly stringent. Travelers should have six months’ validity on their passports and allow at least one month for the application process. Prepare to pay $45–200, depending on country. Visitors also need to be in possession of a return plane ticket and an accommodation itinerary so if you’re visiting friends, book a hostel and cancel later. China offers many countries’ citizens a 144-hour transit visa, provided they have an international round-trip ticket. Single-entry visas are valid for three months, double-entry for six months, and multiple-entry for six, 12, or 24 months. It’s a good idea to carry your passport everywhere; you will need it to purchase tickets and change money. If you need consular assistance, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States all have embassies in Beijing. You will also need your passport for entry into all museums in Beijing, including the Forbidden City.
Few people are searched upon leaving or entering Beijing, but all bags go through a scanner. At politically sensitive times, books may be examined, and anti-China material will be confiscated. Food, two bottles of liquor, and two cartons of cigarettes can avoid duty, while any personal-use electronics brought into the country must be taken out again. If you are carrying ¥20,000 (or any currency worth $5,000), you must declare it. Antiquities, recreational drugs, protected-species products, and weapons are strictly prohibited; even souvenir knives are confiscated from checked luggage. China has zero drug tolerance; to be safe, bring your physician’s prescription with you. The Chinese government has a useful website outlining customs regulations.
For the latest travel safety advice, check the websites of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the US Department of State.
Travel insurance is vital. Medical care at foreign hospitals costs US-level prices. Most local Chinese hospitals will not take insurance and will require a hefty deposit for more expensive procedures.
Although China doesn’t require vaccinations, those spending months traveling around the country should consider the basics. International-standard facilities – such as Beijing United Family Hospital, International SOS, and Hong Kong International Medical Clinic – have English-speaking doctors, but when visiting Chinese hospitals – even Peking Union Medical College Hospital’s international department – you may need an interpreter. (Be sure to mention medications, allergies, and family history – not everyone asks.) Pharmacies sell both Western and traditional Chinese medicine. The International SOS pharmacy is ideal for buying over-the-counter medicine and getting advice in English; however contact an international hospital for emergencies.
Those concerned about pollution can download an app for hourly reports. Buy a 2.5PM mask and plan indoor activities for bad days. It is safe to brush your teeth with tap water, but always drink bottled water. Western digestive systems can struggle with the oil in Chinese food, so it’s a good idea to bring anti-diarrhea medicine.
Beijing is surprisingly safe, but watch your wallet on public transport. Sanlitun’s increased police presence has made this once-sketchy area significantly safer. However, scams are rife; look out for the “art students” in Wangfujing who want to practice their English and sell you paintings, or the locals in Tian’an Men Square who invite you to a teahouse – you may be stuck with a $600 bill. Solo female travelers should choose official taxis and a female pedicab driver – and always stay awake.
There are English lines available for emergencies, such as the Foreign Emergency Services as well as the ambulance number, but to save time, ask a local to make the call. However, it can be quicker to take a taxi for going to the hospital, rather than waiting for an ambulance.
The national currency is the yuan (¥), also known as renminbi or kuai (slang). Notes come in ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50, and ¥100 and 1 and 5 jiao (slang: mao); coins come in 1 and 5 jiao, and ¥1. Most banks have 24-hour ATMs that take both international and domestic cards, as well as international credit cards. To change money, try major banks.
Free Wi-Fi is available at most restaurants and cafés; high-end hotels often charge a room-usage fee, but keep public areas open. You’ll need a VPN to access Facebook, Google, and most Western sites. The most popular ones are Hide.me, ExpressVPN and PandaPow, but this situation is fluid, so check reviews before leaving and sign up for free trials. Apple and Google maps should work with a VPN, or try Ulmon or Baidu. WeChat offers free audio and video calls and messaging to local and international users. The best network provider is China Unicom. Purchase a SIM card at the airport or at local shops (you will require a passport), and test it before you go; call 10100 and wait for the prompt to activate international calling – and ask for discount numbers for international calls. You can buy top-ups from phone shops or via WeChat. Make sure your phone will work in China; GSM phones should have 900 and 1800 Mhz frequencies or bands.
Open 9am–5pm daily, China Post has several branches in Beijing, but couriers are usually faster. For next-day deliveries within the city, ask your hotel to arrange a kuadi – which costs around ¥30.
Restaurants are usually open 10am–10pm, but Chinese restaurants often close 2–5pm, except for the 24-hour options on Gui Jie. Many bars serve snacks until 11pm, and convenience stores and street food are always available. Shops, stores, and supermarkets usually stay open 9am–9pm, while banks, post offices, and pharmacies operate 9am–5pm. Museums and attractions are usually open 9am–4:30pm, but some have shorter winter hours, and nearly all are closed on Mondays. For distant or unusual attractions, it is always best to call ahead to confirm opening hours.
Beijing is eight hours ahead of GMT, 13 hours ahead of New York, and two hours behind Sydney. The city does not use Daylight Saving Time.
Electrical current is 220 volts AC, so North Americans should use dual-voltage appliances or a converter. China uses two parallel flat pins, two parallel round pins, or two or three slanted flat pins – and some sockets accept all of these. Buying a universal adapter is advisable.
China Daily and Global Times are the best choices for English-language news; try also Xinhua, online. For entertainment, the expats are Time Out Beijing, That’s Beijing, and The Beijinger. For English-language radio and television, try CRI (China Radio International), and CCTV9 for documentaries and news. CCTV also has channels in Spanish, Russian, French, and Arabic. Big hotels sell magazines such as Time and The Economist, and offer CCTV, BBC, HBO, and Hong Kong cable.
Foreigners holding a visa valid for 90 days or more can apply for a China Provisional Driving Permit at Beijing Capital Airport’s Terminal Three; there are usually some English speakers there who can help with the paperwork. However, this license is only valid for rental cars within Beijing, and most rental agencies don’t always rent to foreigners. Beijing has heavy traffic but excellent public transportation, and hiring a local car with a driver is a more viable option.
Temperate weather makes both spring and autumn the ideal seasons to visit the city. During summer, temperatures range from 80º F (27º C) to a soaring 105º F (41º C), while winter can be anywhere from 26º F (-3º C) to 16º F (-9º C). Beijing generally has a dry climate, but summer sees frequent rain as well as some hailstorms, while winter tends to have the heaviest pollution.
Since hosting the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has increased the number of barrier-free facilities. These include most attractions (and parts of the Great Wall), subways, and many buses; there are also wheelchair-friendly taxis available to order. Most shop and hotel entrances will have ramps, and most hotels have lifts.
There are tourist offices in each airport terminal and around the city.
Travel China Guide, China Highlights, and Discover Beijing Tours offer standard packages and day trips. Or try Bespoke Travel Company’s customized tours. Private car and van drivers can make budget trips to the Great Wall.
Smoking is banned in indoor public spaces. The legal age for drinking and smoking is 18 but rarely enforced. Be warned: cheap alcohol is usually fake and often hazardous.
The famed fake-goods open markets are disappearing; now Beijing boasts foreign brands from Apple to Zara. Also mushrooming are chic boutiques, particularly in the areas of Gulou and Sanlitun, which has the Taikoo Li outdoor mall and some of the city’s best shops and restaurants. Other good shopping areas include Wangfujing in the city center and Parkview Green in Chaoyang district. If you can’t go without haggling, visit Panjiayuan Market for antiques, and the Silk Market for bags. Traditional craft shops are best found in Gulou, and you can’t beat Nan Luogu Xiang for quirky souvenirs. Buy art supplies at Liulichang, and reading material at The Bookworm in Sanlitun or the Wangfujing Foreign Language Bookstore.
Foreign visitors can get VAT rebates on purchases worth more than ¥500 (spent in a single store on a single day) on a stay of less than 90 days; show your passport and your receipt, and take the gifts with you on the plane.
The complexity of China’s eight major cuisines (and thousands of subsets) is staggering. Guangdong is famous for its dim sum and chicken’s feet. Sichuan and Hunan are the spiciest cuisines, but Sichuan uses more oil and peppercorns. Landlocked Anhui stews mountain herbs and vegetables; Fujian, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang focus on seafood. The most foreign-friendly cuisine is Yunnan.
Most restaurants have a vast array of vegetables and tofu dishes, but there are also many dedicated vegetarian restaurants. Rice comes at the meal’s end; avoid sticking your chopsticks in the bowl, since it resembles the incense used for funerals.
Most menus have glossy photos, if not English translations. It’s a good idea to learn a few key food phrases (“something with beef/chicken,” or “something spicy”) and let the kitchen surprise you.
Chinese people eat together. Meals are social affairs and the host pays the check. Tipping is not expected – and often the service reflects that.
For short stays, pick traditional and charming parts of the city; most hostels and courtyard hotels are located in hutongs, which provide food, entertainment, and hours of people-watching. They may also have cafés or rooftop bars, and even hostels can help you arrange tours or drivers. Business hotels are scattered around the city, especially in Chaoyang and the CBD. You can expect good service and excellent English, plus restaurants, a pool, a gym, and a complimentary fruit platter in the room.
6553 2288 (24 hours)
151 0167 9082
773 283 1999
135 2206 9857
139 1072 8962
136 5137 4172
136 2112 7407
29 8523 6688